Accused of having taken an illegal campaign contribution, Edwin Edwards, who knew the law better than most judges, once offered a novel defense. For someone to have made the contribution was illegal he explained, however it was not illegal for him to accept it. Turns out he was right.
Speaking before an upstate group with evangelical leanings, Edwards was being goaded because of his reputation for womanizing. According to former Secretary of State Jim Brown, who was there that night, Edwards turned the jeers to laughter as he explained, “I don’t drink, and I don’t smoke. Two out of three isn’t bad.”
Since his death last week, the media have relished his one-liners. (Referring to David Treen, a Republican political opponent, Edwards once said, “It take him an hour and a half to watch 60 minutes.”)
At some point though the conversation turns to the legitimate question about whether or not he was a good governor. Here too some might laugh, but on matters of governance he was to be taken seriously:
During his four terms as governor, Edwards was a builder, and he could bridge factions. Early in his first term he delivered a new constitution for the state, a task that had been a political quagmire. The document cleaned out many of the political obfuscations encoded in the earlier document and, in its day, was considered to be the model state constitution. When the world’s fair was stalled in New Orleans, he helped save it. He saved the Saints franchise from moving by cajoling Tom Benson into buying the team and persuading the legislature to fund improvements to the dome. He supported the deal to build the arena, which capped the dome’s neighborhood as a sports entertainment area.
Edwards was born in 1927, the year of the Great Flood. That was also the year Huey Long was campaigning for the 1928 gubernatorial campaign. Long would dominate Louisiana politics during the years of Edwards’ youth. Edwards was raised in the spirit of old style populism. Government, because of its need to appeal to so many people, cannot always work perfectly but if it gives the poor and needy basic services, that at least provides some hope for the future.
Edwards may have built too many hospitals and he may have been too enamored with casinos, yet, just as Mussolini made the trains run on time, we see throughout history that the hutzpah that made scoundrels out of men frequently made them effective at moving mountains, or, in Louisiana’s case, building bridges.
During the Katrina recovery it was frequently lamented that Edwin Edwards, rather than Kathleen Blanco, was not in charge. (One difference is that supposedly Blanco was reluctant to accept President George W. Bush’s offer to federalize the National Guard for the rescue. Edwards, on the other hand, confided to friends that he would have quickly allowed it. That way the federal government would have to assume more of the responsibility.)
In the famous gubernatorial runoff between Edwards and Klansman David Duke, a bizarre pro-Edwards bumper sticker proclaiming “Vote for the Crook, it is Important” capsulized the public’s perception of him. Edwards won with nearly 60 percent of the vote and left in the campaign’s ashes one of his best one-liners by conceding that he and Duke did have something in common: “We are both wizards beneath the sheets.”
Edwin Edwards’ politics might not have always been delicate, but he produced results. He did ultimately get the federal government more involved in another way: U.S. Attorneys always had reason to watch closely whatever he was doing…
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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